Barbie, Midge, Robin and Me

The father of my best friend Robin owned a tool business franchise which provided two young girls with opportunities to fill bins in his wonderful red truck, to bake cookies he could share with customers, and access to dozens of interesting empty boxes.

Robin attended 95thStreet School and I went to parochial school, but we had matching pencil boxes in our desks. Most kids found a source for cigar boxes, but we had decorated paper boxes not needed in his truck into unique containers with compartments for pencils, color pencils, scissors and such. We didn’t know each other’s school friends, but we shared something deeper: hours of playing with Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Ken in wonderful houses, stores, airplanes and schools constructed out of even more empty boxes.

When the weather was cold, Robin’s basement became a town for an afternoon of play. Her Barbie had a flight attendant outfit, mine had a tailored suit. We shared a plastic pseudo-Barbie car that took one to the airport and the other to an imaginary office. Neither of us knew anyone who worked in an office or flew on planes so eventually the story turned back to all the dolls sitting at little box desks with one Barbie, attired in a skirt and sweater, called teacher.

Robin had an older sister and we both had moms so we knew real women weren’t built like our Barbie crew, but we didn’t know flight attendants, nurses, doctors, brides, or girls who wore wonderful ballgowns. Our parents didn’t buy us Barbie’s plastic house or bedroom furniture, but Robin’s dad shared tape and scissors and boxes to build furniture and a variety of workshop towels to make blankets. We stood next to him in his wood working shop as he made small frames and blocks that could extend our Barbie furniture building. We learned how to sand.

Our Barbie phase lasted less than a year, a simple time when we creatively explored, built and did what kids are supposed to do. Parents helped feed our play then stepped back. And we did okay. And I wish I could say thanks to Robin’s father and all the other parents who stepped out over the years with camping trips or garden planting or an evening at the opera to expand the world beyond the girl toys of Barbie and her crew. And those who do that today as  they parent another generation of kids.

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Changing Thanksgiving Traditions

When I was a girl, Thanksgiving dinner might occur on Thanksgiving itself or the day after—whichever day my father had off from the fire department.

The table was set for eight with an ironed tablecloth, Mom’s sterling silverware, and her good ivory china bordered with a band of light blue and a thinner band of gold. My father presided at one end of the table and my mother faced him at the opposite end in the chair closest to the kitchen—in case she needed to hop up to get something. My two grandmothers, my two older brothers, my younger sister, and I filled out the sides.

Mom masterminded the meal—getting up early to put the turkey in the oven, making the stuffing, the green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pie. One of my grandmas brought cranberries and the other brought rolls. My sister and I chopped onions and celery for the stuffing, stirred gravy, and set the table. We also helped clean up. But Mom bore the weight of making this holiday a success. Now that I’ve helped prepare many family holiday meals, I understand and appreciate how much work and pressure this labor of love can be. That we shifted days barely registered with me then. What I recall were the smiling faces and good food.

As is the way of things, our family grew and we expanded the Thanksgiving table.First came my brother’s wife and their kids. Later, my great aunt and my mother’s sister, both widowed and childless, joined us. When my sister and I married and had kids, we enlarged the table again.

At that point, there were too many of us for my parent’s small dining room. A dinner for 20-22 was getting to be too much for Mom, who was now in her mid-70’s. Thanksgiving dinner moved to my sister’s bigger house. My parents contributed pre-roasted turkeys from the deli, and Mom brought several pies. My siblings and I prepared the rest of the food. My sister set two adjoining tables with her sterling silverware, ivory china rimmed in gold, crystal goblets, and a flowery centerpiece. Wine flowed freely and we were a festive and rowdy bunch.

In the last several years, the family circled around the Thanksgiving table has grown smaller. My parents and two aunts are gone now. Our small family of four doesn’t always travel to Ohio for the holiday. Sometimes my sons’ girlfriends join us at our smaller table, but now my sons each need to be a part of their girlfriend’s family gatherings, too. That’s as it should be. Holiday traditions are supposed to flex with a family’s changing circumstances.

This year, the day of our Thanksgiving celebration shifted once again, because that’s what works best for our sons. Several days ago, I set out my good white china and sterling silverware, arranged flowers, cooked and baked, and gave thanks for the smiling faces at my table.

 

                We at the WordSisters wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and hope there are plenty of smiling faces at your table.

Time Traveling

toll road  Last week, I traveled back in time while driving to Ohio to visit my sister, brothers, and their families. The 12-hour road trip called for lots of tunes, and I found myself craving oldies that I could sing along to, even though I don’t usually like the oldies stations when I’m in Minneapolis.

Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan sent me back to college, when I hung out with my wild boyfriend, partied with his buddies, and took midnight dips in borrow ponds on hot summer nights.

The Fifth Dimension brought back high school and sleepovers in a girlfriend’s basement rec room. We danced to the “Wedding Bell Blues” and sang it at the top of our lungs. At 14, we yearned for love and passion, but for most of us, that was still a ways off.

As I drove through the neighborhood where I grew up, Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” took me back to my best friend’s pool and her mother snapping off the radio when she heard his sexy growl. She thought it was unsuitable for our 10-year-old ears.

Several times I got lost while bumping along Toledo’s crumbly blacktop roads that are scribbled with tar. I’m no longer as sure of my way around—I’ve been gone 30 years—longer than I lived there.

But inside my sibling’s homes I found myself. I became the middle sister again, the one who loves Bruce Springsteen like my sister and the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival like my brothers.

The Care Giver Relay

Baby Boomers ran the first relay race known as working and maintaining families without help or comprehensive policies from our government.  Day care, sick child care, after school care, elder care. Home or facility based? Who takes the call when the plan falls apart? Who helps the cared one feel comfortable?

I’ve run all legs of that relay using strategies that worked in the moment for our kids, ourselves, our parents. We had wonderful experiences, and days I hope no one remembers. The cry of a toddler dealing with separation anxiety, a sick child asking a parent to stay with them, the whine of a school kid not wanting a babysitter, all disappear as a family matures.

The set of sounds that haunt me is a fragile parent demanding you stay, forgetting anything else exists in your world because they are anxious, the suggestions of hired caregivers that maybe dad would feel better if you walked out of a work meeting to come spend an hour. When you are carrying the heaviest responsibilities of a job that provides for the family you created, those calls tilt the world. Different, but equally difficult if you live miles away or states away.

Our local newspaper is running a series of stories about family elder care providers, also known as adult children. Just like searching for quality child care decades ago, individuals quickly discover there is no safety net or logical system to access when an elder family member needs help. It isn’t there so don’t do an online search. Network, know the finances of the person depending on you as well as their needs, then do the best you can. And do it right now. The hospital plans to discharge the individual tomorrow afternoon.

It isn’t an employer’s responsibility to expect less of you because an ill spouse or parent has doctor appointments, physical restrictions, emotional insecurity or a string of emergencies. Increased longevity does not equal decades of quality living. Without a safety net, it will be you standing on one foot balancing too many glass balls.

Elder care was the most difficult leg of the relay. Unlike an expected due date, elder + care can become part of your life any day or in a few months or years. That relay leg is run on a special course with more rocks than cushion. The vulnerable one can have physical needs but be capable intellectually and aware that they have become a burden. The vulnerable one may be physically capable but wandering in dementia. There is no known end. Your loved one will not enter kindergarten in twenty months. This part of life has no schedule for the refrigerator. You will have days that vaguely resemble television commercials where adult children chat with a professional provider and mother is wearing pearls. There will be more days that you lift a fragile loved one off the toilet in a bathroom that could use a better cleaning. You do the best you can.

No need to continue. Many of us have run the race and placed somewhere in the standings. Some finish their caregiving with shaky finances, some with high blood pressure and anxiety of their own, some with a scrapbook of treasured memories. As a Baby Boomer, I fear the end of life years for many reasons. Not the least that there is no national forethought about caring for the coming gray tsunami. Maybe like the baby boomlet of the 1980s, we’ll just let the Gen Xers and Millennials stumble through working long hours, raising their own children, dealing with deep debt, and caring for a couple of vulnerable elderly parents.

It isn’t going to be pretty.

 

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Are You My Mother?

In the classic children’s picture book Are You My Mother? a newly hatched bird falls from its nest and wanders about asking that question of a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a few inanimate objects. He is clueless about his own identity and terribly lost.

You may have been nurtured by a mother possessing all the perfection of Caroline Ingalls or struggled through childhood with a parent who took lessons from Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude. For most people growing up in Mom’s kitchen fell in a more safe and boring middle ground with measured opportunities to learn about yourself and the world. A place where Mom, trusted adults, books, television and other kids helped answer questions whether insignificant or intense.

The maker of peanut butter sandwiches, enforcer of daily tooth brushing, comforter of physical or emotional injuries, was just a woman who happened to be older than you. She wasn’t gifted by the gods with amazing knowledge, a graduate of a secret parenting program, or anywhere near perfect. She didn’t know why 9/11 happened, how to stop social injustice, who to call about global warming. Her job was to make sure you felt loved and protected, often difficult work in an imperfect world.

Discovering that your mother has a masters in labor economics, hides a bag of bodice busters in the closet, holds strong feelings about mutual funds versus annuities, was married before she met your father suggests a richness in this woman’s life that has nothing to do with your existence. This is the school where she learned the mirepoix that flavored every scold, joke or counsel.

Even when the person who mothered you becomes too old or fragile to cook a really good dinner or read a favorite author without help, there will still be unknowns to explore in the woman who taught you to fake burp, to connect cables on a sound system, to ask your boss for more responsibility, to speak in many voices so your child giggles as you read Are You My Mother?.

 

Reprinted from cynthiakraack.com May 9, 2015